Journeys funded by foreign governments and industry-backed nonprofits afforded California lawmakers abundant opportunities to get out of Sacramento last year, but they accepted less in free travel in 2014 than the previous year, according to an analysis by The Sacramento Bee.
Lawmakers journeyed to multiple continents, earning passport stamps in places such as Israel, Chile and China while also embarking on domestic jaunts to Maui, New York City, Chicago and Pebble Beach. They mingled with representatives of industries ranging from clean energy to insurance to dentistry.
But after accepting $550,000 in free travel and related expenses in 2013, lawmakers listed at least $371,000 worth last year, according to disclosure forms filed this week. That still exceeds the $329,000 legislators reported for 2012.
Sponsors say the trips let lawmakers learn about issues from the experts and gain real-world experience on policies their votes will shape.
Lawmakers who went to Chile thanks to the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy toured innovative energy projects, a priority for both Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders. An annual jaunt to Maui lets legislators hear from panelists and trade ideas in an open atmosphere, according to a spokesman for the Independent Voter Project, which sponsors the trip and draws support from scores of groups that include health care companies, oil firms and pharmaceutical mogul Eli Lilly.
“We have public policy discussions at our symposia in-state and then we go and look at best practices in places around the world,” said P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.
Critics lambaste the trips as opportunities for affluent interest groups to win special access to decision-makers.
“I think a lot of these trips have really become a way for lobbying interests to wine and dine legislators in a secluded environment and have exclusive audience with them on a particular issue they care about,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.
Ethics reform vaulted toward the top of the legislative agenda last year after the Senate suspended three members facing federal charges and California’s ethics watchdog slapped hefty fines on influential lobbyists. Some proposals, like a bill barring fundraisers at the homes of lobbyists, became law.
But others faltered, some of them on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Among the measures Brown nixed were a measure reducing the value of gifts lawmakers can accept, and a bill requiring lawmakers to disclose more information about who pays for travels.
The disclosure forms also detailed gifts lawmakers and statewide officers received. Brown accepted $200 worth of tequila from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Many lawmakers received cowboy hats from the California Cattlemen’s Association. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, claimed tickets to a generation-spanning cohort of concerts: Elton John, Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars.